Iran Nuke Deal surpasses injustice: Israel MP Michael Oren tells The Oslo Times
By Prabalta Rijal
Sept 30, Oslo: Israeli Member of Parliament, former Ambassador to the US, historian and renowned Author Michael Oren who was born and has lived and worked mostly in the, US through his latest book the Ally has analysed the US relationship with Israel and how the Iran Nuke deal affects Israel.
Dr. Oren, who is also the author of the New York Times best-seller 'Power, Faith and Fantasy and Six Days of War: June 1967' and the Making of the Modern Middle East, which won the Los Angeles Times History Book of the Year Award and the National Jewish Book Award, in an exclusive interview with the Oslo Times International News Networks Editor-in-Chief Hatef Mokhtar and Chief International Correspondent Prabalta Rijal, spoke about the Nuclear deal and why Iran cannot be trusted with Nuclear technology and Human Rights situation in Israel.
I have concerns, you might have heard. I don’t know if you have read in Wikipedia that I have this book out now called 'Ally'. It's an autobiography but mostly about my time in Washington. In the book I have written that in 2008, while I was a visiting professor at George Town which is very much involved with the state department and it's think tank, it was there that I began to hear a school of thought. And that school of thought was -- the United States, in the course of the previous three decades, developed very close alliances with Israel as well as with the Sunni Arabs but made mistakes in both cases.
The Sunni Arabs fell apart, they had invested trillion dollars in Iraq. It was the Sunni Arabs who had carried out the 9/11 attack and the Israelis made settlements and it complicated and strained America's relationship with the Arabs. So the US had bet on the wrong horses. There was another horse in the race -- a stable horse. It wasn’t nice but a stable horse, a democratic kind and people were pro-American. More importantly, the horse was winning -- it was winning in Syria, Lebanon and in Iraq. So the US changed its course towards Iran, away from Tel Aviv, Riyadh and Dubai. I have written it as the strangest story I have ever heard. When I went from being a professor to an ambassador, I started hearing the same school of thought over and over again.
Despite the nuclear deal, Iran has made it clear that it will keep waging proxy wars against Israel. Iran’s defense minister said in Tehran that his country has signed a contract with Russia for four S-300 surface-to-air missile defense systems. How do you feel about this?
Concerned, I am going to give the same answer to this issue all the time. When I say, 'our', I mean Israel is close to national consensus, so the essence of our objection to Iran's nuclear deal is that it is not a neutral country. Iran is not Belgium. Iran is a country that openly says it wants to destroy us. It's a substantial issue. They don’t just say they want to destroy us, they take concrete efforts and steps to destroy us. They have 100,000 rockets which they put in the hands of Hezbullah and trying to upgrade them turning them into guided missiles. We just don’t have any defenses against that right now.
They are also putting together terrorist groups against us, so it's not just the rhetoric here, they mean it ! And for a country with our history -- if someone tells us that they want to kill six million Jews then you have to be very serious about it. They are denying one holocaust but they are trying to implement another one. When they want to acquire anti-aircraft systems, the most advanced systems in the world, they are doing it to protect their nuclear weapons. Why do they need to protect the site if it is for peaceful purposes? The fact they are trying to acquire these advanced systems shows that their nuclear facilities are not for peaceful purposes and needs defending.
The Iranian Ambassador to Norway Majid Nili in an Interview with The Oslo Times has claimed that Iran will not use its nuclear facilities to develop nuclear weapons. Do you trust it? And looking back at the history, do you really think Iran can be trusted with nuclear technology?
Iran cannot be trusted because it has lied systematically about every aspect of nuclear proliferation for more than 30 years. So, on what basis can you trust them? In today's news, a secret annex of the agreement was published which said that Iran was going to inspect its own suspected military nuclear sites, a site that we have known for a long time. They have tried to clean it up for a very long time. And everyone knows that nuclear military research and tests are going on there.
Let me get this right, are the Iranians going to inspect their own site? I was in Washington when the underground research facilities were found and we were talking about a huge fortified nuclear facility, and the Iranians lied about it. There is a tricky bit about the nuclear programme. You need huge facility to generate power but a small part can be used to make weapons. Finding a room this size (the room where the interview took place) in a country like Iran, which is half the size of Europe, is like looking for pin in a hay stack.
Human Rights Watch has claimed that Israel has committed serious human rights violations, as the security forces have reportedly used unnecessary force to arrest or detain Palestinian children as young as 11. Security forces have choked children, thrown stun grenades at them, beaten them in custody, threatened and interrogated them without the presence of parents or lawyers, and failed to let their parents know their whereabouts. What do you have to say about such abuse against children?
Firstly, on one hand I think human rights organizations have had a long standing position on Israel. Then you have the UN human rights council which not only condemns Israel more than any other country in the world but more than all the other countries combined. This is because; the UN has an automatic majority against Israel. There are 56 Islamic countries and 22 out of them are Arab nations and you have nations closely allied with the Islamic states.
So, the UN's Human Rights Council always condemns Israel but it never condemns Syria. The Syrian government has killed over 200,000 Syrians but it has never been condemned. I am here in Kathmandu and dealing with an Israeli human rights organization that aids victims of human trafficking. Thousands of Nepali women are sold throughout the Arab world, I mean do they ever get condemned.... for human rights violations? No, never, it's never going to happen. In fact, according to the United Nations Human Rights Council's Article 7, Israel is the only country that needs to be investigated for human rights violations every year.
Having said that, I am not a diplomat anymore. I am a Knesset Member and I speak for myself, and yes we do have human rights challenges. We have a very complicated relationship with the Palestinians. We have offered several ways to bring peace between them and us. I am in a party that is in the government (the Centrists party). It is in favor of a two-state agreement and there are challenges and sometimes relating to human rights. Israel is not a perfect country, it is progressive and will get better, not worse. Still we have nominal situations in the West Bank which is not part of Israel but is under Israel's control.
There have been incidents of Jews attacking Palestinians and we are using the same law against the Jews extremists that we are using with Palestinian extremists.
Extremism has various faces though Islamic extremism widely condemned. Jewish extremism too exists. The recent attack on a Palestinian family which killed an 18-month toddler is an example of Jewish extremism. As a member of parliament, how do you view the Hate Crimes?
It is a hate crime, an extremism which is intolerable, just as a Palestinian attack on Jews. The only difference is that the Israeli society, the Israeli government, the President and Knesset members have overwhelmingly condemned this act and we have called for immediate arrest for the perpetrators who need to treated like terrorists.
Meanwhile on the Palestinian side, Mohammad Abbas praises such attacks on the Jews and names squares after them. The approach to terrorism is not symmetrical and we have to do everything in our power to uproot extremism. It is not about what the Palestinians do, we regard terrorism in a different way.
Both the UN and the International Court of Justice in The Hague have declared that the areas captured by Israel in the 1967 war are occupied territory, and in moving its own citizens on to the occupied territory, Israel is violating international law. What is your view on this?
We do not recognize that court, the United States does not recognize that court and we have a different interpretation and so has the US. The West Bank, where Judenians marry had been a part of Jordan. What Jordan had occupied during the 1948 war was supposed to be a part of the Palestinian state. It was later annexed into Jordan and this annexation was only recognized by two states, the United Kingdom and Pakistan. The occupation was formalised.
The West Bank was used to wage wars of destruction against us, firstly in 1948 and later in 1967. We won both wars and pushed the Jordanians out of the West Bank but never annexed it. So West Bank, according to our legal interpretations, has no legal standing as a part of any sovereign country. You cannot occupy a place which was never a part of any country.
Also, Israel is the legal heir to the British mandate of Palestine. We have the legal claim over that territory as compared to anybody else. There is no other country that has a legal claim over that territory. There is no Palestinian state right now. So my answer is that on the conditions of anonymity, it is not an occupation how it is generally understood. I also have a position as an Israeli and its not an acquisition, it is an ideological and emotional position. If you look at the bible, it was a Jewish state. The bible serves as a historical foundational document for us, we wouldn't be there if it weren’t for the bible. We could have been living in Oslo. So, we probably wouldn’t have existed if it weren’t for the bible.
According to the Bible, Jews have an ancestral claim over the land. If you look at the bible, you don’t find Haifa or Tel Aviv there but Jechrico and Bethlehem. These lands are in the West Bank where we originate from. They are the cradle of our civilization.
So, as a Jew I don’t think we can occupy our own lands. I understand that we are ruling over Palestinians and that has got to stop. If we reach a two-state solution, it would be great. I am not certain if we can but I want to try.
Also on an emotional front, I don’t consider myself an occupier. I consider myself as somebody who is in an unfortunate situation ruling over other people, which I want to end.
Now let's come to the regional situation. The conflict between the Jews and Arab world has been going on for ages now, what would be the solution to the attacks and human rights violations happening from both sides? And how difficult does the involvement of terrorist groups like Hamas and Hezbollah make to end the conflict situation in the region?
It is very difficult to generalise between the Muslim world and Israel. I sometimes find it very difficult to accept the notion of a Muslim world or a Jewish world or even a Christian world as in various points in Israel's history we had very good relations with Muslim nations. We had good relations with Turkey, and Iran too. In fact, we had a very close relations with Iran. Now, we have very good relations with Azerbaijan and
Kazakhstan. We have peaceful relations with Egypt and Jordan on the government level.
There are different modals for relationships between Israel and an Islamic state or a Muslim majority state, not to distinguish between the two. Right now, there is probably a greater cup holds of interest between Israel and three Arab states. Take the gulf-states for example: Israel and other gulf states agree on Iran, we agree on Hamas and ISIS. We also have similar concerns about American and Russian policy.
Some people believe that the ISIS is funded by Israel, what are your views on this?
I am not really sure how that works, because that would mean the alliance isn’t working well. It would be more like join the Iranians, come to Iraq with the cooperation of the US, that is just not Israel. I don’t know how that works or can even work and it is not a very professional talk either.
IS is just not much of a threat to us, as it is to some of our neighbors. Its not as much a threat to us as Hezbollah and Iran are. ISIS right now is pretty scary, but they are just mainly men with guns and flat trucks. Hezbollah has 100,000 troops and Iran has nuclear weapons. The threat from Iran and its proxy is much greater than the threat we face from IS at the moment.
Before we round off this exclusive interview, could you tell us a little about your new book, "Ally"?
Well, I didn’t begin my career as an ambassador, I was a historian. I wrote books about the history of America and the Middle East, and a number of other books. This book was completely different from anything I had ever written before. Its the only book I have ever written in the first person narrative and about myself, which is very challenging. It is a book where I have tried to explain about who I was and where I am from and how I got to Washington. The first sixty pages are about how I got to Washington.
The rest of the book is about the US-Israel relationships between the period of Obama and now. It depicts the transformative time for America which has gone through far reaching changes, the Middle East comes apart, the peace process goes nowhere, the Iranian nuclear talks carry on secretly -- altogether a very difficult time. My hair was his coat when I started, that’s how bad it was. I want to take the readers behind the scenes of what was happening. I knew the Iranian deal would be a major deal and I wanted to give the readers a sense of how we got there for the record.
So, there were a number of challenges here, one was what do you talk about and what don’t you talk about? Now by law I can only say something and the rest is a secret apparently and this book had to go through seven screenings by the Israel Minister of Justice, the Foreign Ministry, the Israeli Army the Mossad and decide what was in and what was out. In fact very little was taken out of the book. But I had a good idea of this and it was a part of the exercise I did when I wrote the book. I wanted to be able to not betray trust. I wanted to give the record without the change of trust.
At the end of the day, the book was called controversial but it could have been much more controversial. I have written it with a lot of care towards the US-Israel relationship. At the end of the book, which people don’t mostly read there is a prescriptive part, a part where I say okay this is where we are and this is how we get out of it, this is how we can get to a better place.
This is a question we ask all our guests--What do Human Rights mean to you?
Firstly, Human Rights is the universal sense of judgment of human rights which includes the judgment of properties, liberties, fundamental freedoms, freedom of expression and assembly,rule of law and laws to protect children and other vulnerable. Secondly, as a citizen of the Jewish state, there is a 4000-year old Jewish tradition of the human rights. That has been derived from the bible. The bible talks against cruelty. I have a very high human rights standard. The human rights situation in Israel is much better than in other countries, we should be striving for greater rights.
How would you describe LGBTI rights in Israel?
Israel has always been very progressive regarding gay rights and we don’t have stereotypes. We are ahead of the United States in many ways. In the US there is a system of don’t ask and don’t tell but we never have that. People can be gay and join military and nobody cares. We have gay ambassadors and their partners get the same rights as the partner of hetero-sexual ambassador gets. There was something in the papers yesterday about US having all these issues.
Many know that we have the largest gay rights in Asia. However, I feel we can do more, we need to strive for greater equality when it comes to marriages and other sticky subjects as religious Judaism does not allow gay marriage. So under orthodox Judaism there is no gay marriage and though this issue has been resolved, we now have surrogacy as the other challenge. And, gay couples have the right of brining in babies and having a family is supported. But it’s a complicated situation, because at one hand you allow a couple to have a family giving them their right to a family but on the other you are snatching another person's right too, by taking a child away from its mother.
Some European governments recognize Hamas as a political party, including Norway. What is your opinion on Hamas?
Terrorists, there is no other word for them.
My sister-in-law was killed by a Hamas suicide bomber. They actually carry out suicide bombings. They fire thousands and thousands of rockets at Israeli civilians, that is terrorism. They mistreat their own citizens. There were a group of people they caught and punished for reportedly collaborating with Israel. The only reason why we had a peace negotiation was because of the Palestine Liberation Army (PLO) and the USA. The USA told them, 'Okay right now you are a terrorist organization and if you want to be recognized as a political party then you will have to do certain things -- You have to recognize Israel's right to exist, disallow terror and accept UN Resolution 242.'
And when PLO and Arafat did that then the USA said, 'okay you are not a terrorist organization'. But what countries like Norway did was recognizing Hamas even after things got sour. Hamas stopped following the mentioned clauses and it continued to fire thousands of rockets at Israeli civilians. It was like you can go on shooting at your own people but we are going to recognize you anyway. It doesn’t matter.
My colleague queried about Extremism and that was a very strong question. Afghanistan too has been combating terror for decades, what are your views on Afghanistan and it's people?
I am a historian but I can't claim to be an expert on Afghanistan although I have spent a lot of times studying power conflicts and the great game. However, Afghanistan has been at the centre of conflict for centuries, a conflict between powers and infiltration. It has suffered enormously. I would just like to wish peace, security and cohesiveness in Afghanistan.
Do you have children Sir?
Yes, I have three kids.
What makes you angry?
Well generally, going back to the Iranian thing makes me angry. People will give arguments why the Iranian Nuclear Deal is harmless and I have plenty of arguments about why it is a bad idea. The best argument I can give you is that it endangers the life of my children. If the life of your children are endangered, you have the right to argue about why this deal is a bad idea. It is easy to say that if you don’t have skin in the game, but I have it. This deal risks the life of my children.
There are counter arguments that if Iran cannot keep atomic weapons why should Israel be allowed to do so?
Our position isn’t wrong and we will not be the first country in the Middle East to introduce nuclear weapons of mass destruction in the region. That was our position decades ago and it still remains the same. But the big difference is Israel is not threatening to blow up everybody else, neither it is threatening to commit a genocide. What are the Iranians saying? They say they want to wipe Israel off the map and Israel must be obliterated and annihilated. They are talking about killing eight million people and that the world goes along with it. The Iranian Nuclear Accord, 155-page document, treats the Islamic Republic of Iran as a legitimate country and not like a terrorist genocidal country.
From an Israeli perspective it surpasses injustice and this has to be fundamentally unacceptable. I mean if you were an organization and a country, what would you do if somebody said they would kill three hundred and twenty million Americans? Would the American people sign a nuclear accord with those people? They wouldn’t. That is what they are asking us to do, we cannot accept it. It's not just our rights, it's our duty not to accept that. It is my duty to my kids.
Could you tell us a little about media freedom in Israel?
Media freedom in Israel is pretty much unlimited. The Israeli news media and newspapers are much less restrained, than the American media. We don’t have such kind of censorship. It’s a very vibrant media and the Israelis gobble up news in a way that many people don’t in the world. The major Israeli news station at night has four times the rating of CNN during prime time. Everybody watches the news, reads newspapers. I read four papers before I go to work and two to three others during the course of the day. Everybody is news crazy. Journalists do really well and they are like national figures.
There is complete freedom of expression in Israel. I'm in Knesset, it’s a very unique body with 120 members. Nearly a one fifth of the Knesset do not recognize the legitimacy of Israel. We yell and scream at each other though there are certain things you can't say. You can't call somebody certain word which can get you into trouble. You can yell and scream till someone asks you to leave. You get three warnings and then you are out. We have about 19-20 Arab members, Christian members and Jews. Everybody gets to share their views in the parliament.
Would you describe Israel as a multicultural nation or is it strictly a Jewish nation, meant only for Jews?
The answer is yes. Israel is the national state of the Jewish people just like Bulgaria is the national state of the Bulgarian people, like Ireland to the Irish. Israel is the national state for the Jewish people who have been around for four thousand years. Some people are religious and some are not but they all are part of this Jewish nation. In Israel, you have the Arabs and other ethnic groups apart from christian Arabs and the Muslim Arabs. There are different Muslims who aren’t Arabs and there are also Christians who aren’t Arabs. They came from Russia. We are a Jewish national state that has ethnic groups and minorities but are not Jewish. They are Israelis just like Norwegians who may not go back to Norway for generations but are Norwegians nevertheless. Even though Israel is a Jewish state of Jewish people, it is also a democratic state which preserves the rights of all its people irrespective of their religion and ethnicity.
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